Producer Rob Hill Talks Transmedia Challenges, Pricing & 'Co-op Shooting On A Massive Scale'
My hands-on time with Defiance, the massively multiplayer cooperative shooter from Trion Worlds that seamlessly ties into a simultaneously-running television series, left me with many questions. How can a game be made in tandem with a TV show, and how will they interact? What compromises had to be made on both sides? How long will Defiance last? Just as importantly, how much will it cost?
Senior Producer Robert Hill has the answers.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): Thanks for talking to us, Rob. First of all, for the benefit of any readers who haven't read our Defiance hands-on preview, could you give us the elevator pitch?
Robert Hill (Trion Worlds): It's a massive, cooperative open-world shooter. What that means is you're in the same world with hundreds to thousands of other players in a cooperative environment. You can go on missions with people who are complete strangers or join groups, put them on your friends list, build a persistent clan, so it's a really social shooter environment that you don't see elsewhere. You can be doing something on your own and someone randomly comes in and helps you out, and at that point you decide, "you know what? I'm going to team up with this guy and start doing things together."
Hopefully you'll build a relationship where it's "okay, now he's on my friends list, oh now I have enough people on my friends list to build a clan, my clan's going to persist over time." It's a co-op shooter on a massive scale with a bunch of social aspects that you won't see in any other shooter franchise.
The story is that you are an Ark Hunter, essentially a mercenary: the Indiana Jones Of The Future. This guy, Von Bach, hires you to find an artefact in San Francisco, but you'll also be working for various factions.
Dealspwn: When we first learned about Defiance, the first word that came to mind was "ambitious"...
Dealspwn: ... and there are a number of reasons why Defiance stands out from the crowd. It's multi-platform, for a start. What developmental challenges did that pose, and will there be true cross-platform play at launch?
Hill: There will not be cross-platform play. We do it right now, you can see [Hill gestures at preview stations] all the PS3s and PCs on the end. They are playing on the same server. Every day, we play Xbox 360, PS3 and PC together. Unfortunately, at launch, Microsoft and Sony aren't really friendly with each other so they won't let us do that cross-platform play.
But, yeah, some of the challenges were having three different development environments. The consoles themselves are six or seven years old, so we have to support memory constraints. The way we handled that early on was we knew we were going to do that day one. So we didn't do one [version] and then port to the other two, we developed all three at the exact same time. Every night, we have one single build and we build out a PC version, an Xbox 360 version and then the PS3 version so that they're all in complete and total sync. We then build the art assets based on what is required for each one.
Dealspwn: Defiance's most ambitious and entirely unprecedented feature has got to be the transmedia tie-in with the Syfy television show. You've been working as a liason between Syfy and Trion, so again, what sort of opportunities and challenges did that pose? How early did you start planning the collaboration?
Hill: We started development on the engine before we even knew about the Syfy tie-in. The way that all that started was, basically, NBC Universal has an investment in Trion so we looked at existing NBC shows and movies to see if we could take advantage of that. It turns out, when we looked at them, the shows and movies tend to be very small in terms of their universes, they tell very intimate stories in a fairly small area, and we couldn't expand to build a massive game off of them.
So we told our CEO, "sorry, we can't use any of these properties because they're just too small." And he happened to go to dinner with Dave Howe from Syfy, who's owned by NBC. He told him about these problems and Howe decided, "why don't we start from scratch. Instead of using an existing IP from us, start from scratch." They got the deal signed so from day one we talked to Syfy about how we build a universe that can support a show and really work in a game.
Dealspwn: So how will the events in the game affect the show?
Hill: Basically it's an evolution over time. They both start at roughly the same time and things will happen in the game that will then happen in the television show. The game launches two weeks before the TV show and the two main characters, Nolan and Irisa, go on missions with players and the object that players help them find is pivotal to solving a problem that happens in the pilot.
We also have a character mid-way through the season who will make his way through to the game and spend several weeks working with the player characters on several missions, He leaves St. Louis as not a very nice person, comes into the game, goes on these experiences with players and becomes a different person - a much nicer person. He then goes back to the show as a much nicer character.
Dealspwn: How heavily will player actions affect the story of the show? Will the game feature branching narratives and missions?
Hill: For the first season, it will be fairly linear; that's why I call it an evolution of the universe. So gamers will be able to trigger events that get reflected in the show. It will really be between the first and second season that players will really be able to drive the narrative more.
Dealspwn: Right, so we'll start seeing the big player decisions enter the show from the second season onwards?
Hill: Yeah, and the reason is that we only launch two weeks before the show, so players haven't really done anything in those first two weeks. There's also lead time for the television show.
It depends on what the event is. If we have an event such as a person leaving San Francisco [the game] to St. Louis [the show], it doesn't make sense for that to happen in a day. You may see it happen a week later or two weeks later because they are moving in real time with each other. But we have another situation where there's a problem with the show and the only solution is in San Francisco. Players will solve it there and in a few days the show will air with that solution.
Dealspwn: How closely do the two production companies work? Is there a lot of crossover at this stage?
Hill: Oh, there's a lot. Both of our bosses said that we have to build a universe that works together and is in total sync. The thing is that the requirements for a TV show is way different to a game if you're not thinking about it ahead of time. Working from day one gave us the advantage of being able to develop this universe from scratch with Syfy, and make sure that "yes, it will work for the game, yes you can do this in St.Louis... but lots of things have to be in common."
Some examples are, one of our primary denizens of San Francisco had four arms. Syfy said "we can't do four arms every week." We also had a primary race who wear a helmet to survive the Earth's environment, and they said, "we can't have main characters with helmets because they can't show expressions." We had to make sure our continuity will be maintained and help them accomplish it.
Dealspwn: Can you see Defiance lending itself to other transmedia properties such as comics, apps and merchandise?
Hill: Yeah, that's really the goal of what we're starting here: to create a universe that we can really spread out. We have talked to book publishers and comic publishers. We haven't announced anything, but we designed the universe to support that kind of stuff.
Dealspwn: Exciting stuff. It's probably time that we steered things back to the game - we are a gaming site after all. Though the character customisation is still in a very primitive state, we can already choose from a couple of races including the Irathient. Will they confer gameplay opportunties as well as cosmetic differences?
Hill: Currently there is no difference besides cosmetic, and that's mainly because we're building a shooter. A true shooter. We initially had a big hulking guy and the Irathient were much smaller, and we realised, "who would pick the big hulking guy because he's easier to hit." Especially during competitive play. In the future, that doesn't mean that we won't be adding some statistics behind them once we have time to figure out balance. If one character is smaller while the other is bigger but has more hit points, that won't mean anything to skilled players. It's hard to really judge stats versus skill.
Dealspwn: You mentioned the phrase "true shooter," and that was definitely the impression I got. How difficult was it to marry the instant gratification and accessibility of a shooter with the deeper MMO elements?
Hill: It was quite a challenge, actually. You have a server and the server has a ping. It has to go from you to the server and back. We spent a lot of time optimising that but we also use a few tricks to mask any latency. For example, I played the game on the Amsterdam server from San Diego, and there was very little latency because of those various tricks. It took a long time to come up with that.
Dealspwn: On the RPG side of things, it seems that you've got some robust character progression systems in place. Could you briefly outline how they work?
Hill: Well, we have weapons! We have thousands and thousands of weapons and they scale in power depending on the power rating that you have. So you can use higher and higher power-rated weapons. But you can also upgrade the powers of your characters. We have super speed, cloaking - the EGO powers. If you go to the skill tree, you'll see a large grid with the four main powers on each corner, and you can start spreading out from your power's corner which will give you more benefits for that power or just general benefits for guns, shields and all those kinds of stuff.
But you don't have to stay there. You can get to a point and say, "you know what? I wanna try this one, now I'll spread out from here." You can then mix and match the different powers.
Dealspwn: The Shadow Wars PvP is great fun - in fact, you could probably release that as a standalone PSN or XBLA download! A Domination-style gametype was on show, but will there be different modes?
Hill: At launch it's deathmatch and capture & hold, but we definitely have a few more up our sleeves that we won't be releasing as DLC - they'll be free.
We don't have faction vs faction but the competitive multiplayer takes place courtesy of an outside organisation who hires you to take out a rebel portion of their operation. So that's how we explain the competitive element.
Dealspwn: Nice, that's streamlined. Now it's time to talk pricing. We take it that Defiance will be a boxed release?
Hill: Yes, it will be a boxed purchase.
Dealspwn: On all platforms including PC?
Dealspwn: So there'll be a one off-purchase...
Dealspwn: ... how then will you monetise it?
Hill: What we've talked about - it's not 100% but this is what we're looking at doing - is a dual system where somebody can decide that they want to grab little-by-little individual microtransactions and individual download content or they can subscribe and get all of that stuff included.
Dealspwn: So there'll be a premium membership or you can cherry-pick what you want?
Dealspwn: Will there be experience boosters and other time-savers?
Hill: Boosters are one of the things we're looking at, for sure. What we don't want to do is sell weapons. Cosmetic customisation - not just you but the vehicles you can drive. Those are the two primary drivers, besides download content which will only be available if you actually purchase it.
Dealspwn: Okay, so will this be story-related download content, like big new quests and raids, that sort of thing?
Hill: Yes, and also gameplay systems that you can start to access if you don't have the DLC, but if you have it you will get full benefits.
Dealspwn: I almost hate to ask before the game's even entered beta, but what kind of lifespan do you predict Defiance will have?
Hill: Well, as long as it's viable. There are some MMOs that are five or ten years old and are still successful. We'd love to see it go as long as people still want to play it.
Dealspwn: Will you be looking at next-gen consoles then?
Hill: We haven't released anything there, we need more information on the next-gen consoles. If there's a market there.
Dealspwn: Are you perhaps playing around with any dev kits?
Hill: Haha, I can't actually say. But if there's a market there, we'll look at tapping into it. But right now there are just so many Xboxes and so many PS3s out there, that we think this market is still highly viable - particularly in April for this type of game.
Dealspwn: Fair enough. Many thanks for talking to us, Rob, and we hope that Microsoft and Sony will put aside their differences for long enough to facilitate cross-platform multiplayer!
Hill: Yeah, me too!
Defiance is set for an April 2013 release on PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and the Syfy channel.